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Eats and Eating : Observations on radical self-imposed diet

Nicholas DiBiase
Poster: Nicholas DiBiase @ Wed Jun 16, 2010 1:35 am

Two years ago this month, I made some radical changes in my diet. I abruptly stopped eating meat and all products made from dead animals, all foods with preservatives or other chemical ingredients, all foods containing ingredients that I know for a fact to be chemically processed (e.g., texturized or isolated soy protein and soy lecithin), corn syrup and its derivatives, alcohol, and artificial flavors and colors. Because I don't like pesticides or having too much money left after each paycheck, I also started eating mostly organic foods, averaging maybe one to two non-organic dinners per week (which, figured into a percentage of meals, equates to a diet roughly 90.5% organic).

To give you an idea if how significant a change this was, let me run down a few of the foods that appeared most commonly in my pre-change diet :

1)Steak. I had always been a steak aficionado, and when I started making more money, I started eating more and better steak. At the time I made the change, I was eating giant, scrumptious, very rare tenderloin filet from AJ’s Fine Foods an average of once per week.

2)Doritos. Doritos have been my favorite chip since at least childhood, and if it turns out that reincarnation is real, I’d lay wage that they were the favorite chip of every single one of my previous lives, even before they were actually invented. I loooooove Doritos. In the old days, when they only came in ‘Nacho Cheese’ and ‘Cool Ranch,’ the ‘Cool Ranch’ were my preferred version. However, when they came out with ‘Spicy Nacho’ in the 90s, that flavor dominated my taste and I ate them like crazy, whenever I could afford them. That aggressive savory flavor just lit up my taste buds like a white phosphorus shell. When Doritos started releasing experimental flavors in the mid-2000s, two to a package (like “Blazin’ Buffalo and Ranch” and “Spicy Sweet Chili,” the latter of which tasted very much like Chinese takeout) I was compelled to try every one. Sometimes, those flavors were good (the aforementioned 2), and sometimes they were grody (“Late Night Tacos,” the black-bagged mystery flavor that I’m pretty sure was supposed to taste like a cheeseburger but to me tasted like beef tallow with a ketchup tang), but it was always a little culinary adventure tasting them for the first time. When I was at university, they practically constituted their own food group, much like the next item in this list. My cat even liked to eat them.

3)Chee-Tos. Even more than Doritos, Chee-Tos defined the study experience for me at college, and continued to be a favorite snack afterward. The pages of my textbooks are smeared with the plutonium-orange cheese powder that I believe to inarguably represent the pinnacle of flavor engineering.

4)Easy Cheez and Cheeze-Whiz. Is it possible to be a human and not adore cheese that sprays out of an aerosol can? I submit that it is not. Easy Cheez is the all-time greatest accompaniment to the best mass-produced cracker ever designed, the Triscuit. It is also shockingly good on Twinkies. And Cheeze-Whiz is the only way of getting nachos correctly gooey. Unless you use Fromager D’Affinois or something, but that can get pretty expensive.

5)Lox and other smoked salmon products. I don’t believe a week went by between 1998 and 2005 that I didn’t have an onion bagel with lox cream cheese from Chompie’s. I also used to get those smoked salmon ‘pinwheels,’ which are like lox rolled up with cream cheese and stuff, every Friday to accompany Pizza Day.

6)Chinese food. I ate Chinese food whenever possible. My perennial choices were salt-and-pepper pork, garlic fried shrimp, Mongolian beef, and the ubiquitous orange peel chicken.

7)Hamburgers. This shouldn’t need any explanation. Hamburgers are so central to the American diet that when pop singer Beck needed a descriptor for sonic elements that were essential to the human experience, he chose “musical hamburgers.” If you don’t like hamburgers, you’re a vampire. End of story.

This change had some pretty significant health benefits and saved my wife and about $100 per week (!) in food costs. In addition to that, I noticed that I didn’t miss those foods all that much – I still ate copious amounts of pizza, French fries, and other all-American yummies that are the building blocks of any red-blooded boy’s chow intake.

I can’t say that I ever really had a craving for any of those things I’d stopped eating until I went even further and gave up caffeine a year later.

I was a really dire caffeine junky, drinking a huge tar-hued flagon of unadulterated coffee every morning, and usually working on projects late into the night with the help of another gargantuan dose of the black stuff, often mixed with Jameson whiskey. I knew that I was a slave to this terrible drug, and my wife hated to see me guzzling such inhuman quantities of espresso-strength java, but it was so much a part of my habit and character that I didn’t see a realistic chance of ever breaking the grip that coffee had on me.

I very rarely get so sick I can’t work. In fact, in April 2009, I celebrated my seventh anniversary of missing zero work days due to illness or other unexpected factors. But later that month, I was cruelly felled by what was undoubtedly the worse case of stomach flu or food poisoning that I’d ever experienced. It struck me while I was at the office, and soon after barfing up all my stomach contents, I was completely immobile. I had to physically crawl out to my far, lump into the back seat, and call somebody to call a cab for me. It was truly horrific.

I couldn’t eat or drink – anything – for the next 36 hours without blorfing it right back up. This meant real dehydration but also the first time in 11 years that I’d gone a day with no coffee. When I finally triumphed over the illness a few days later I thought to myself “Hey! I feel OK. I haven’t had coffee since I got sick – I must have gone through the withdrawal while I was already otherwise incapacitated. Maybe I should take this opportunity to get off caffeine permanently.”

And so I did. For over a year now, I’ve consumed no caffeine or other stimulant.

But there was an insidious price to pay for this freedom. Slowly, I started to unconsciously use sugar as a caffeine substitute.

In his 1988 song “Illegal Business,” KRS-One names sugar as one of the society-plaguing drugs that's “got to go.” At the time, I laughed it off – come on, Kris! No way is sugar, which is perfectly legal and appears in virtually everything I eat, a pernicious drug worth mentioning in the same paragraph as “cocaine” and “sinsi.” As usual, of course, KRS turned out to be right. Sugar is a powerful substance that turned a stoic into Pookie in the space of a few months.

It started subtly, innocently, with a glass of orange juice each morning. Soon, I started to eat dessert regularly, which had never before been my habit. Then, I started to hanker for candy. I happily indulged this strange desire with the many easily-available organic chocolate bars to be found in yuppie groceries like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. After that, my scaffolding of reason crumbled and I started telling myself kid stuff, crazy stuff. Lies, like “hey, M&Ms aren't that bad for you,” and “Go ahead, those fruit jellies are OK – look, no preservatives!” Soon enough, I was buying M&Ms in the immense 42-ounce bag. That bag would last about four days before it was spent. Think that's bad? It got a lot worse.

I'd never been a frequent soda drinker before. Sometime in late November, I discovered that root beer made without preservatives or corn syrup is available. I used to absolutely love the occasional root beer as a kid, and this was like a license to party. I sampled many such root beers, being particularly taken with Dr Tima's honey-sweetend version. Things didn't really get out of control, though, until I discovered Virgil's, which has a delightful wintergreeny kick and can be had in 12-packs for about a dollar a bottle. It started out slowly : I'd start having a root beer on Friday like some people unwind with a Coors. It turned into one every night. By March, I was drinking two of those pancreas bombs per day. Believe me, just because they don't have high-fructose corn syrup doesn't mean they're like a glass of wheatgrass juice.

Several weeks and additional pounds later, I realized that this madness needed to stop. One of my mottoes is “If you detect slavelike behavior in yourself, it's your responsibility to stop it immediately.” I was clearly in thrall to the sticky mistress that is sugar. It was time to say “Sayonara.” I quit sweets and refined sugar that day.

None of the other habits I'd kicked – hamburgers, espresso, 'Get Smart' reruns – had the kind of brutish withdrawal and seductive temptation toward recidivism that sugar does. That sweet floozy had her crystalline tendrils wrapped all around my gustatory insticts and would not let me be! After each dinner, I had a powerful craving for sweets that no apple could slake.

It's obvious what had happened here. Instead of happily enjoying the triumph caffeine addiction, my rebel body decided to replace it with another, more noisome compulsion. Making this situation worse is the fact that now, I experience 'food flashbacks,' much like some bedraggled hippie who failed to heed advice about giving brown acid a wide berth.

I began to suffer cravings for very specific food items from my culinary past. Not just “Oh wouldn't a hamburger be nice right now,” but “Oooh, it's definitely time to go get a delicious cheeseburger with fries from Four Peaks,” complete with explicitly graphic pictorial food memories showing each glistening detail of the forsaken treat. Here are some of the foods that I've begun to really miss since kicking the sugar compulsion :

- Candied ginger from See's Candies

- Braised lamb shank from Pars Persian restaurant in Scottsdale

- Chocolate doughnuts.

- Grandpa Ruby's Reuben from Chompie's. The best, and certainly the most intimidating, Reuben sandwich in the USA. Grilled rye, Swiss cheese, corned beef in harmonious concord.

- Cheez-Its : One of the most satisfying and unhealthful foods known to humans

- Alden's or Haagen Daz chocolate ice cream with little shavings of chocolate all incorporated in it : this stuff is revelatory

- Fruity Pebbles

- Chicken on a stick from the wonderfully greasy Hong Kong Gourment Chinese buffet.

- Buffalo wings from Four Peaks. Crispy, hot, and worthy of their own cult.

- The aforementioned Four Peaks hamburger. Something very unique and must be chomped to be believed.

It's not easy. I wouldn't recommend this kind of bizarre experiment in self-control to anyone. Principle is a thing of monumental expense. I'm not sure that this undertaking, which to my epicurean nature feels akin to asceticism sometimes, was the right thing to do. Nothing for It now but to ride this wave of yearning all the way back and try to protect my cabeza when it finaly crashes. Like Hunter Thompson said : Buy the ticket, take the ride.

-Nicholas DiBiase

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